Have you ever wondered who the people are behind some of your favourite gluten free products? Why do they spend their days trying to conquer the gluten free challenges of making bread without holes, or crackers that don’t crumble at the sight of cheese? Are they motivated to make money from the growing gluten-free trend, or are they coeliac themselves? And how do you make a gluten free brand successful?
For the first in a series of interviews and articles focusing on the faces behind our favourite brands, I am pleased to bring you an interview with Richard and Ellis Ward, the father and son team behind the Barkat brand and the online store Gluten Free Foods Ltd.
As a relatively newly (5 years) diagnosed coeliac, I know them best as faithful reproducers of some of my pre-coeliac favourites (ice-cream cones, teacakes, pretzels) I wasn’t aware just how long the Barkat brand had been established. Richard was able to share some insights on what the gluten free world was like before we could visit the ‘free from’ aisle in the supermarket, and how the market has changed leading up to the massive range of products they have globally today.
Why was Gluten Free Foods set up?
R: It was set up in April ’69 when Janine, my daughter, was in Great Ormond Street Hospital and nobody could work out what was wrong with her. I was asked via the leading professor there if they could do a groundbreaking examination on Janine. When I asked what this examination entailed, it was to insert a camera into her small intestine, this had never been done on a child before.
After the results came through, they were over the moon to tell me that Janine had classical Coeliac Disease. I had no idea what this meant whatsoever.
I was then introduced to a dietician who explained the type of diet that Janine would be on. In the late sixties, the belief was that she would outgrow the Coeliac condition by late puberty- which we now all know is not the case.
I immediately went home and experimented in my kitchen. I attempted to make bread using corn flour, rice flour and potato flour- there was no such thing as gluten free flour mixes in those days.
I scribbled down all the ingredients, the weights, the measures and temperatures to show the dietician the following day. When I showed her she thought it was an amazing product and she soon asked- ‘what about my other patients?’ That is when I started Barkat.
Were there any other gluten free breads around before that?
R: There was nothing; no gluten free bread, no gluten free mixes- absolutely nothing. In supermarkets, everything was sold in plain bags, so finding ingredients for the products was almost top secret.
How did you then make your bread into a business?
R: I then became a founding member of Coeliac UK which only had 11 members at the time. I then found a flour in Sweden and my first import was just 4 kilos. 20 years late, I was importing 600 tonnes.
What was the public’s general awareness like of gluten free foods in the seventies?
R: The first exhibition we did was for Brewhurst (the largest health food wholesaler) they had never heard of the term ‘gluten free’ before. In fact, I remember one receptionist picking up the phone and saying to the buyer ‘your visitor is here from ‘glutton’ free!’
I would say I spent 30 years of my life educating the medical profession. If we go back all those years ago, dieticians would spend four years studying and only half a day would be spent on Coeliac.
When did it become more marketable?
R: I would say the change happened when the antibodies blood test became available which meant Coeliac was much more easily diagnosed.
Our big breakthrough came through in 1999, when we were contacted by a dietician that used to work for us who had then go on to join Tesco’s. She asked us if we could supply the chain with gluten free bread. We worked with them developing our bread for about a year and then we finally broke through and had a full listing on the shelves.
E: I remember the first time we got gluten free food into the press. It was in 1996 and Esther Ranzen asked us to appear on a programme she hosted called ‘Food Fads’. She invited us, along with Anthony Worrell Thompson and various others. The show gave us the first opportunity to say ‘It aint’ a food fad it’s a diet for life’. It’s not just a diet for Coeliac disease but it’s a diet for lots of other conditions where it helps and benefits them as well.
Over the 50 years, what is the biggest change you have both noticed?
R: Eating out without a shadow of a doubt. Eating out has become so much easier. Shopping has become so much easier. Shopping everywhere.
E: I think the biggest breakthrough was the FSA guidelines, which meant products have to state what is gluten free and what contains traces of gluten. So not just nut allergies, soy, milk, egg but now gluten as well. That for me was the biggest advancement and for the company it has given us a much wider marketplace. So much so, that the range is now available all over the world- in The Hebrides, Lands End, Wales, all over England to Trinidad and Tobago, North America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe- we are constantly growing.
What do you aim for when creating new products for Barkat?
R: Quality. If the food is good enough for my kids to eat, who are both Coeliac, then it is good enough for everyone else.
You run the online store, Gluten Free Foods, why do you sell other brands than Barkat?
E: We want to create a one-stop shop for the consumer. If you live 30 or 40 mins from the nearest town, we will deliver to your home or office and provide you with a wide variety to choose from.
Finally- Where is your favourite place to dine out gluten free style?
E; Mine is without a doubt a pizza restaurant. Now the choice is endless and I am constantly debating where is the best pizza- Pizza Hut? Pizza Express? Prezzo? It is so nice to go out for dinner and feel the same as everyone else.
R: If you want to really treat yourself, book for an afternoon tea at Claridges- our bread is used for the sandwiches!